Reimagining Learning and Teaching

Reimagining Learning & Teaching

by Radha Gopalan @RadG Environmental Scientist, Learner & Educator

“The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds”…Dalai Lama

“The ecological compassion that resides in our indigenous languages is dangerous once again to the enterprise of domination, as political and economic forces are arrayed against the natural world and extractive colonialism is reborn under the gospel of prosperity”.…Robin Wall Kimmerer


The Chintan Shivir has set itself the goal of ‘reimagining education in the context of resolving the dilemmas and paradoxes of current education, and its role in a democratic republic.’ The context in which this critical thinking and reflection is happening is at a time “when respect among peoples has grown threadbare, and there are gaping holes in the fabric of life.1” In an environment that is pushing for separation and exclusion – between human and human and human and other beings. When, ‘caste apartheid’ (a phrase from Dalit writer and activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan) makes young first generation learners resort to suicide in premier science and technology institutes in the country. It is the time for restoration, healing and regeneration. Such an education system must be actively reimagined and completely re-cast.

In thinking about the possibilities of reimagining education in such a context, there are two ideas that have taken on a sense of urgency in my mind: relationship with our immediate environment (socio-ecological environment)2and giving it priority in how we learn & teach. The second is that learning (rather than instruction, information transfer, exam as the goal) together be an intimate part of the teaching and education process. Teaching, must become a vocation and profession and not just another job.

This discussion note focusses on the formative years when children and young adults must develop flexibility, adaptability, confidence, ability to question, resist dogma and oppression. Without this we cannot hope to build resilience, compassion and justice in and for this world.

Grounded in Place & Context

Theory and practice have shown that learning is intuitive and instinctive for children. They learn actively from their environment – by observing, being curious, interacting with people, other life forms, and the material world. For children to grow and flourish, they must be in an environment they can relate to and explore freely and fearlessly. Textbooks and curricula that focus on facts, phenomena, stories, images, illustrations and events that they cannot connect to their real-world experiences can make learning disembodied. Learning embedded in a place and local context, in local languages, with local stories, examples, poems, lived experiences, particularly at an early age, allows children to explore, understand relationships and dependencies between humans, non-humans and the physical landscape – the socio-ecological environment. It then translates to love, respect and an intimate relationship with that environment. Often this manifests into actions to protect, restore and rejuvenate these relationships and work towards co-existence. Not just for the place but extending to the planet as a whole.

When learning happens through empirical, embodied experiences at an early age, with questioning, thinking critically and arriving at well-reasoned explanations, it builds the foundation for scientific thinking. It helps children to make sense of theories and abstract ideas when introduced to scaffolded, level-appropriate inputs at relevant points in their learning. When learning is grounded in a place and context, it provides opportunities for multiple ways of knowing and being, from local knowledge systems and modern science, to arrive at an empathetic and well-reasoned shared understanding of the surrounding world. It opens up possibilities to dialogue and collectively arrive at ways to coexist as humans while learning to be a part of the larger natural world.

There are and have been several exemplars of such learning efforts in different kinds of landscapes (urban, rural, different geographies and socio-economic contexts) across India that everybody at the Chintan Shivir is familiar with and of which many of us are / have been a part of. While some work with marginalised communities, there are others that focus on students from privileged backgrounds. They exist across the country, and are often termed ‘alternative’ schools, learning centres, unschooling, deschooling efforts. Why are they ‘alternative’ and continue to be ‘alternative’? Why are these diverse models not ‘mainstream’ education? Why should we have ‘one’ way of learning and educating in this heterogenous, complex, rich and diverse country?

Education policies, guidelines and documents present the vision for Indian education as “developing an equitable and just society.”3 The NEP 2020 lists “Holistic Health, Organic Living, Environmental Education, Global Citizenship Education (GCED), as discrete “contemporary subjects.” There is also an emphasis “to ensure that these [local] languages and literature stay alive and vibrant.”

Indian education must be decentralised to realise this vision. Curricula and resources developed locally, emerging from and responding to local contexts and priorities drawn from the complex and varied local and regional landscapes. It becomes all the more significant in the context of the difference in socio-ecological vulnerabilities of each region, even within the same state, to climate change. In practice however, an increasingly centralised, corporatised shift in education from early childhood to higher education is envisaged through the NEP 2020. It will deepen the alienation of our children and youth from their socio-ecological contexts, undermine local knowledge systems and languages and erode identities.

Bringing the framework of place, local, context-based learning from ‘alternative’ to mainstream affords several possibilities. Instead of creating a market-driven labour force, such a framework holds promise of creative, critical thinking, well-reasoned and compassionate generations. Some action possibilities for discussion are placed later in the section ‘Sowing Seeds.’

From Learning Environments to Pedagogy

Creating effective learning environments require a strong workforce of dedicated, passionate and empathetic teachers. While subject competence is crucial for a good teacher, knowing how to teach it at different levels and for children from different contexts, empathy, and a love for children, learning and teaching are imperatives. Several studies over the years, have identified absence of rigorous and well developed teacher education programmes as one of of the main gaps in the Indian education system. It is evident in the quality of a significant number of teachers in our school and University systems and in how we as citizens (of all ages) relate to our immediate environment – whether it is managing our waste, our health, how we consume, our acceptance (or lack of it) of differences in food, faith, caste and other identities, or how we relate to each other and other life-forms.

In an information surfeit world the teacher is no more the provider of knowledge. The teacher must facilitate learning by “engineering effective learning environments4”. The teaching must be in praxis which requires the teacher to practice, reflect, learn, and shape their practice – continuous and life-long learning. Children, particularly at an early age, learn from what a teacher does, how they live, relate to others around them rather than from what they teach. ‘Engineering’ local, context and place-based learning environments cannot be imagined without rigorous professional development programmes for teachers. It must include on-the-job capacity building and be part of the education system. For this our teacher education programmes need to be re-imagined. Learning to listen to children, respecting and giving attention to every question, having the humility to say ’ I do not know’, reflecting and actively working at facing their own biases and prejudices of caste, class, ethnicity, gender and other identities are qualities that must be developed and nurtured through our teacher education programmes.

Sowing Seeds

If our learning environments and pedagogy is not place-based, we cannot understand the changing reality of our contexts. For instance, how and why are our cities glass and concrete heat islands devoid of green spaces; what does this mean for our future; why is their such deep deprivation and inequality; why and how human-animal interactions move from co-existence to conflict. Our education must teach us, our children and youth how to think, learn and know to move from conflict to co-existence; to be and act so we are able to heal, restore and rejuvenate our relationships with each other and the planet of which we are a part and not apart.

To think about and discuss possibilities of sowing the seeds to re-imagine our education along the two ideas discussed thus far, I place some kernels for deliberation at the Chintan Shivir.

  • Constitutional & legal approach towards decentralising education. The architects of the Constitution had placed education as Entry 11 of the State List in the spirit of true federalism and states’ rights. The subject of education was moved from the State List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution to the Concurrent List in 1976 through the 42nd Amendment passed during the Emergency. Several states, particularly Tamizh Nadu have been taking recourse to legal means to bring education back to the State list5

  • From the macro to the micro. While there are excellent pedagogy and content resources on place-based learning from across the country, they need to be curated and made available through open-access repositories. Creation of platforms and spaces that can facilitate and support networking of experienced educators and those seeking help in the development of textbooks and curricula for local contexts could contribute to ‘mainstreaming’ the ‘alternative’ and making it accessible to all. Textbooks and curricula must have space for stories, poems, art & craft embedded in the local socio-ecological context6. However, a caution here: these must be verified to be authentic and not rooted in pseudoscience and chauvinistic claims of superiority of traditional science and knowledge. While curating of such efforts are underway by some educators, resources conventionally not thought of as ‘educational’ such as PARI7 also need to be identified to support place-based education. History of science and scientific endeavours without excluding on the basis of caste, gender or any identity8need to be part of such stories.

Science education pedagogy and content resources are not included, as others at the Shivir will probably focus on that. In this context, two aspects need emphasis, more so in the present situation: equipping teachers and students with the ability to identify and filter out authentic, accurate information; be skeptical while nurturing curiosity and wonder and find ways and tools to call out claims and scientific inaccuracies.

  • Re-imagining teacher education. A few thoughtfully designed teacher education programmes done to scale, have emerged in Universities in the last few years. But majority teachers have and continue to get their education training through the largely uninspiring B.Ed programmes focussing on rote-learning, teacher-led, exam-based education. There needs to be a concerted effort to find ways to bring teacher education on-the-job and into the schools so teachers can learn from practice.

A related aspect is examining and completely rethinking our assessment processes so that they are formative in the true sense – teachers learning from the students responses and building that into their teaching process. The NEP 2020 mentions the need for competency-based assessment, continuous assessment etc. For the student, assessments must be a way to broaden and deepen conceptual understanding. For the teacher it should be to know how students have learnt, how they think, what students have learnt - from practice to praxis.

There are inspiring stories of learning and teaching across the country, of people working with scarce resources to make education meaningful. With the hope that we can draw upon all this experience as part of the critical reflection at the Chintan Shivir and emerge with a mosaic for Indian education, I conclude this note. Wishing the Shivir much creative energy.

Acknowledgement: In preparing this note, I would like to acknowledge my own learning that has been catalysed and inspired (and continues to be) by the innumerable children, young people, elders, communities who have all been my teachers. I acknowledge with deep gratitude the learning, inspiration and resilience from the non-human beings who inform and shape my thinking and life.

1From Robin Wall Kimmerer in Speaking of Nature. Orion magazine. Orion Magazine - Speaking of Nature

2The reason I clarify this is because often the word ‘environment’ is thought of in ecological terms, and the social (which includes the economic and cultural and which shape the social) is viewed as separate.


4 For more on learning-teaching see Dylan Wiliam’s book on Embedded Formative Assessment. The role of formative assessment in effective learning environments | READ online

5 Why education should be in State List AND Union List: DMK MP P Wilson | The News Minute; Bring education back under State List: Experts- The New Indian Express

6 See the work of artists like Sudarshan Shaw who uses pattachitra style of painting for wildlife conservation. He does this by creating wildlife maps.

7; People's Archive of Rural India

8 Leelavati’s Daughters: Lilavatis Daughters | Women in Science | Initiatives | Indian Academy of Sciences

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